Sunday, September 30, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “Dreamcatcher”

This is the second book by Stephen King that I have read in as many weeks (broken only by a brief stopover for a Dean Koontz book that I started but abandoned in such haste, it does not warrant a ‘review’). Originally created under the working title of “Cancer”, Dreamcatcher is the story of four childhood friends Gary Ambrose ‘Jonesy’ Jones, Pete Moore, Joe ‘Beaver’ Clarendon and Henry Devlin, and Douglas ‘Duddits’ Cavell.

There are two events of prime significance in this book; totally unrelated at first, but inexplicably and inextricably woven together as later events prove. One occurs in their early teen years, when the four save Duddits from a group of sadistic bullies. The other occurs some years later, on their annual hunting trip to the Hole-in-the-Wall.

Let me start with what I liked about this book. I thought the central theme of the novel was awesome. I liked the way the childhood encounter with Duddits explains as well as resolves the alien invasion years later. I also liked the characters of this story. Each of the four friends had traits that were distinct as well as something we could all relate to. I was especially in awe of Duddits who grows from a helpless bullied boy with Down’s Syndrome, to the powerful force that brings it all together in the end. And without giving too much away, I will say that I really liked the element of telepathy - how it was first discovered, and - even more brilliant - how it is finally tied in to the novel’s title.

And now for what really put me off! First - and this, from what I hear, is just the way Stephen King writes - I found the narrative unnecessarily long-winded. A very good idea seemed buried under an avalanche of words, words, and yet more words! The other major problem I had with this book was its very gross obsession with the victims of alien invasion breaking wind and releasing the “shit-weasels” out of their… yes, anus. There may be no logical explanation to my next point, but I found the incessant references to movies, directors, actors, books, authors… quite annoying. And finally, I thought the liberal spray of bad language could have been turned down just a notch!

Having only read two books by Stephen King (one of which was by “Richard Bachman”, and obviously not intended as horror) I cannot with any authority say if this is a typical example of horror by the universally acknowledged king of horror or not; but I will say that although this book had elements ranging from grossness to science fiction, it was not Horror. That said; I have liked enough to give King a few more tries!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “The Long Walk”

This is the first Stephen King book that I have read, and it elicited the most changing reactions to any book that I can remember! As I was reading, I went from like to dislike, from boredom to fascination, from Oh this sounds interesting to Ok this is going nowhere, from Oh that was really good to Oh that’s just too repetitive, from That was scary to Oh that was so sad to Wow that was awesome!

Generally, people’s interpretation of this book seems to revolve around a somewhat autocratic view of corporate USA or just modern society in general. My reading is different. In the final analysis, I have come to identify The Long Walk with Life itself.

The story is about an annual walking contest called “The Long Walk” that participants or “Walkers” embark upon. There are some basic rules such as not straying from the path, maintaining a certain speed and sticking to a fixed food intake. Each infraction incurs a warning, to a maximum of three, after which the offender gets “ticketed”. The last man walking is the Winner and receives “The Prize”, which is anything he wants.

Amid all my vacillating reactions, and presented in the form of a national sport, as I read each chapter - headed, interestingly, by a quote from famous television game shows - the story slowly took on deeper levels of meaning.

When the story starts off, there is no clear concept of what is to come. As the boys begin to gather, all we know is that something big is about to start. Slowly, very slowly, we are introduced to the purpose of the gathering. And then the long walk starts. And continues. On and on and on… And we meet memorable characters like Raymond Garraty and the ever-loyal Peter McVries. We get to know of the sad past of Stebbins and see the tragic future of Hank Olson. We see the transformation from foul-mouthed bravado to madness and mayhem in Gary Barkovitch and Collie Parker. We bid farewell to Arthur Baker and Scramm and Mike. We feel the fear of dying, and see the horror of a nervous breakdown; we see some hide behind facades and some shine through with defiant dignity. And at all times we have the age-old question of “Why?” thrown at us…

And somewhere it clicked. This is what life is all about. When we start, at best, we only have a vague idea of what to expect, based upon stories that others have passed on. All we know for sure is that we need to be prepared for the road ahead, the rules to be followed, and the consequences for breaking those rules. Along the way we meet new people. Some we like, some we don’t; some always have a helping hand ready for us, and for some, we will some day be willing to die for. And if we can beat all odds, we will get exactly what we want. The simple fact is: we’re all in it. And we’re in it till we die. Against a constant reminder of our mortality, we may say it is all so trivial or we may wish we were insane just so we could bear the madness of it all. But ultimately it is up to us to decide if we want to buy our ticket at the start line, or keep walking even when half our stomach has been blown off and our entrails are hanging out. Oh, and yes, we do have the option of being a nameless member of The Crowd and cheer the heroes or just collect souvenirs including faeces from the roadside.

The narrative of an average life could get monotonous. Got up. Got dressed. Took the bus. Went to work. Came back home. Had dinner. Did the dishes. Watched TV. Went to bed. Got up. Got dressed… You get the picture! But in all this monotony, there are moments, big and small, which touch our lives and leave an impression for all time to come. Within this “pointlessness” we just have to find a point, a reason to live, and keep an eye on the Prize. It may all come to naught. But not trying just makes it worse.

On a final note, I have to highlight the section “The Importance of being Bachman”. This is the first Stephen King I have read, so I had no idea who Richard Bachman was, but once I finished the book, I read the prologue and it gave me a greater appreciation of the book and its driving theme.

This was a fantastic read, and I think I might give this book another read some day… like my life, there may be some points I have overlooked that bear revisiting.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “Confessions of a Crap Artist”

On the surface, Philip K. Dick’s books can come across as anything from slightly odd to very weird! (“Ubik”, a happy medium, continues to be my favourite). However, scratch the surface, and you will discover a world of novel ideas and a mirror of naked reality.

Unlike most of Dick’s works, Confessions of a Crap Artist is not science fiction, but a slice of life set in 1950’s California. It is the story of Jack Isidore, his sister Fay Hume, her husband Charley Hume, and the young couple Nathan and Gwen Anteil. So far, so normal. But as I got deeper into the book, I discovered a very weird, even twisted world.

Ostensibly the title refers to Jack Isidore, so called because of his obsession for things that other people consider junk - cataloguing old science magazines, collecting worthless objects, and for his ideas that others consider rubbish - notions that the Earth is hollow or that sunlight has weight. But once he moves in with his sister and brother-in-law, and we are introduced to the manipulative Fay Hume, the boorish Charley Hume, the philandering Nat Anteil, and the fanatic Claudia Hambro, we begin to realize that Jack may in fact be the only non ‘crap’ character.

I think the narrative style - switching the voice from character to character - enforces that belief. Jack may have accepted this title, but as every character speaks within this title, every character in essence confesses to being a crap artist. Jack may genuinely believe that the world will end on April 23, 1959, but Charley thinks it is acceptable to beat his wife brutally if she asks him to pick up tampons from the store; Nat reasons “on and on” in order to justify an extra marital affair with a woman whose husband lies in hospital, while his own wife waits at home; Fay thinks it is all right to control people and dictate relations through spreading misery; Nat and Fay see nothing wrong in coming together to fabricate an entire story attacking Gwen in court to obtain a divorce decree.

It was also interesting reading about certain interactions, which the characters took in the greatest earnestness, but which were in fact quite comical! Nat Anteil’s lengthy ruminations as he tried to rationalize his affair with Fay; Claudia Hambro’s “hypnosis” session to pick one among the “SEB”s to announce the last day of Earth; and most of all, Jack’s theatrical reporting to Charley about his wife’s affair, are striking examples!

This book was weird, not in terms of scientific fantasy or futuristic imagination but more a weirdness of characters, or relations, of motivations in this life. The shocking event that took place upon Charley’s return from the hospital was the last layer that the story descended to, with Jack’s final decision to seek psychiatric help effectively cordoning off this weird world with its crap artists.

I will end with this lament by Jack Isidore; “The irony of a slob like that… who never got through high school, calling me a “crap artist” lingered in my mind… I can just see all the Charley Humes in the world… that slack, vacant expression on their fat red faces… and it’s slobs like that who’re running… everything… A man like that in a position to blow his nose on the rest of us, on anybody who has sensitivity or talent.”

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “The Warlord of Mars”

“Kaor”! This third book of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series picks up right where the previous book had left off, and gets into the adventure right away. We see John Carter settle the issue of the rulers for the Blacks and of Helium, follow Thurid, the Back Dator to discover a secret alliance between the two enemies Thurid and Matai Shang, Father of Therns, their common goal to eradicate him and defile Dejah Thoris, and find out the secret entrance to the Temple of the Sun.

There are some very interesting places and ideas showcased in this book. We go inside the Temple of the Sun, which is “password protected” by light! We go through the brilliantly lighted labyrinth of crystal glass at the base of the temple. We barely escape with our lives in the Chamber of Reptiles. We survive the madness of the alternating darkness and illumination of the Pit of Plenty. And we visit the fabled Carrion Caves and meet the supposedly extinct Yellow Martians in secret domed cities at the poles.

I also liked how, at moments when all seems lost, suddenly and from unexpected quarters, a ray of hope bursts through to save the day. The actions of Thuvan Dihn of Ptarth, the recollection of the ring of Prince Talu of Marentina, and the dramatic entry of a Tars Tarkas led army of allies down the streets of Kadabra were especially memorable.

On the minus side, the writing sometimes tends to be simplistic, almost contrived. Some events are deliberately placed only to serve as a comprehensive solution to a complex problem. As an example, in the beginning, when John Carter is following Thurid and Matai Shang along the River Iss, he finds a hiding place where, for the convenience of all, Matai Shang says, “Let us stop here a moment that I may hear your plans”, which Thurid then proceeds to outline in detail. Again, when Carter is escaping from the Pit of Plenty, he overhears the conversation between Solan and Thurid, where, having discussed their goals, Thurid proceeds to announce the entire plan with an introductory, “Let me repeat it to you, that you may see if I be letter-perfect”.

That apart, this was still a fun adventure to embark upon! “Twenty-two years before I had been cast, naked and a stranger, into this strange and savage world. The hand of every race and nation was raised in continual strife and warring against the men of every other land and color. Today, by the might of my sword and the loyalty of the friends my sword had made for me, black man and white, red man and green rubbed shoulders in peace and good-fellowship. All the nations of Barsoom were not yet as one, but a great stride forward toward that goal had been taken…” Sometimes the inane acts of discrimination in today’s world disturb me - and this concluding speech really touched me.

This ends the first trilogy of the “John Carter of Mars” series (after which, the main characters appear only sporadically through the next 8 books). For me, A Princess Of Mars remains - by far - the best. That book fascinated me because it contained elements of science fiction and inspiring social commentary. We discovered a new world with new races and new cultures and a whole new way of living. That unique feature is, for the most part, missing from the next two books, which tend to be more of action/drama.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “A Feast for Crows”

As I organize my thoughts on this book, I feel that this review is more an invitation to one who has read the book and would like to have a discussion, and not so much a standalone review of a book; for, with each successive blog on George R. R. Martin’s series ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’, I find myself only mentioning what’s new or outstanding.

This story revolves around King’s Landing, where the 8-year old Tommen Baratheon ‘rules’ under the aegis of his mother Cersei Lannister, who, more than ever, proves that no deed is too evil for her, no liaison too taboo, and no trust too sacred. A lot of the main characters are absent in this book. However, while I definitely missed the likes of Tyrion Lannister (mostly!), Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow, it was interesting to know more of Brienne of Tarth, Sansa Stark a.k.a. Alayne Stone, Samwell Tarly, Asha and Victarion Greyjoy of Pyke and Aeron Damphair, the priest for the drowned god. Of the lesser characters, Septon Meribald remains memorable, especially his thoughts on religion and war: one, a tolerant view of the many forms of God, and the other, a poignant observation of “a broke man [who] lives from day to day, from meal to meal, more beast than man.”

The intense sense of drama continues in this book - but what adds excitement is the fact that we are privy to certain events that are unknown to the characters themselves! When, for example, Lady Olenna Redwyne and Cersei meet, and Cersei doesn’t know what we do, it’s very interesting to see how the conversation and events unfold!

Another favourite section of mine was the House of Black and White in Braavos, the temple of the Faceless Men, where we spend some time along with Arya Stark, or “Cat of the Canals”! The house itself is gorgeous, its people, very mysterious!

Also very interesting is the slow mirroring of Cersei Lannister in Margaery Tyrell! Not only is she the only one who can stand up to Cersei, she is also the only one who shows streaks of the older woman in all her charming ways - in all the sweet manipulations, and even to the point of a jokingly referred to relation with her brother Loras! The concluding scenes involving Margaery, Cersei and Jaime Lannister, were especially remarkable!

In my blog on A Storm of Swords, I had said that Daenerys Targaryen seemed to be a worthy heir to the Iron Throne; in this book, Maester Aemon, with his dying breath, tells Samwell Tarly that she is the one. This and some other thoughts are left for us to mull over as we wait for the next book… how far will the predictions of Maggy the frog come true? What will happen to Arya’s affliction caused by drinking that warm milk? What did Lady Genna mean when she told Jaime, “Tyrion is Tywin’s son, not you”? Will there be a revival of Arianne Martell’s plan for Princess Myrcella Baratheon? And what provoked Petyr Baelish to say, “In the game of thrones, even the humblest pieces can have wills of their own. Sometimes they refuse to make the moves you’ve planned for them”?

There is an overriding sense of grittiness and violence - including violence of language and sexual violence - that encompasses this book. As Jaime reflects at one point, “This is a time for beasts, for lions and wolves and angry dogs, for ravens and carrion crows.”